Out Of Cairo Trove, 'Genius Grant' Winner Mines Details Of Ancient Life Historian Marina Rustow earned a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" — one of 24 winners announced today. She tells NPR's Robert Siegel about her research delving into the Cairo Geniza.

Out Of Cairo Trove, 'Genius Grant' Winner Mines Details Of Ancient Life

Out Of Cairo Trove, 'Genius Grant' Winner Mines Details Of Ancient Life

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Historian Marina Rustow earned a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" — one of 24 winners announced today. She tells NPR's Robert Siegel about her research delving into the Cairo Geniza, a storeroom of texts that accumulated over many centuries.


We're hearing from some of this year's 24 MacArthur Fellowship winners today. These are the so-called genius grants, awards of $625,000 paid out over five years. One does not apply for a MacArthur. People are nominated for one, people like Marina Rustow of Princeton who studies fragments of documents from the Cairo Geniza. A Geniza is a store room of a synagogue where old books and texts are kept. The one in Cairo held a collection of texts that accumulated over many centuries. Professor Rustow, congratulations, and thanks for talking with us today.


SIEGEL: You specialize in the study of particular fragments of documents. First, how old are the documents that you study?

RUSTOW: Most of the documents that I study and the vast majority from the Geniza date to between about 1000 and 1250.

SIEGEL: Now, the Geniza was a place to put Hebrew and Aramaic texts that were no longer in use, but you're studying what's written in Arabic on pages that also have Hebrew words on them.

RUSTOW: That's right. This is one of the sort of strange things about the Geniza, is that on the one hand, the whole purpose of the storage chamber is to discard texts in Hebrew script. But there are quite a few texts that aren't in Hebrew script. And I started to notice a few years ago that more and more Arabic script was popping up. And some of it was quite large, and the line spacing was very wide. And I began to realize that these were fragments of government decrees that had been shredded and were being kind of recycled, reused for texts in Hebrew script. So it's those that I'm trying to kind of piece together right now.

SIEGEL: So (laughter) it's as if we've found a diary that was written on supermarket receipts, and instead of being concerned with the diary, you're looking at what people actually bought at the supermarket.

RUSTOW: Exactly, right.

SIEGEL: Well, what have you found out so far about this community?

RUSTOW: One of the things that I found out that really surprised me is the kind of free access that people had to the government, meaning anybody was entitled to submit a petition. And petitions could be submitted in totally personal matters like, you know, I owe this guy a debt; and he's pressuring me to pay him back, and I don't have the money. And you'd petition the Caliph and say, you know, can you help me out with this, or can you tell him that I want to pay him back in installments? So some of the requests that you see are really quite personal, which is very surprising to me.

SIEGEL: And can you get a sense as to whether the Muslim caliphate was often granting these petitions, or were they more often saying no to them? What was the back-and-forth like?

RUSTOW: On rare occasion, you see a petition with some scribbling on the back where sort of lower-government officials wrote down what the response should be. And then they would send it to the chancery, and the chancery would write up an official decree. And in those cases, you see that some requests, in fact, are granted.

SIEGEL: Your working with documents from the Cairo Geniza, which scholars have been studying since the - well, since the 19th century, since the late-19th century. There's still more work to be done. There are documents that haven't yet been examined from that storehouse.

RUSTOW: The total number of documents - or, I should say, folio pages - so recto and verso - from the Geniza is 330,000 or thereabouts. Nobody's even counted yet. And very few of those have actually been catalogued or even identified yet. It's a field where you need a lot of languages and a lot of technical skills to do it, not that many people are willing to go into it. And of those who do, you know, everybody has their sort of specialty, or they're interested in one particular thing. And what that means is that it's very hard to gain a sense of the whole.

SIEGEL: And will the MacArthur Fellowship make this work of yours that much easier or more efficient?

RUSTOW: That's what I'm hoping. I mean, I'm very committed to collective work, and sometimes you have to sort of wire in the infrastructure, build institutions and recruit people. So I'm hoping it's going to give me a chance to do that. The other thing that I've been sort of fantasizing about since I got the news is just taking some time to sort of trawl - in other words, go into documents without any clear idea where it's going to lead me, without some sense of the narrative that I'm trying to piece together and just kind of wander aimlessly in these fragments.

SIEGEL: Sounds like fun.

RUSTOW: It's a lot of fun.

SIEGEL: Professor Rustow, thank you very much for talking with us. And again, congratulations on the MacArthur Fellowship.

RUSTOW: Thanks. It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's professor Marina Rustow of Princeton who studies fragments from the Cairo Genizah.

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